Techdirt's think tank, the Copia Institute, is working with the Trust & Safety Professional Association and its sister organization, the Trust & Safety Foundation, to produce an ongoing series of case studies about content moderation decisions. These case studies are presented in a neutral fashion, not aiming to criticize or applaud any particular decision, but to highlight the many different challenges that content moderators face and the tradeoffs they result in. Find more case studies here on Techdirt and on the TSF website.

Content Moderation Case Study: GitHub Attempts To Moderate Banned Words Contained In Hosted Repositories (2015)

from the word-filters dept

Summary: GitHub solidified its position as the world's foremost host of open source software not long after its formation in 2008. Twelve years after its founding, GitHub is host to 190 million repositories and 40 million users.

Even though its third-party content is software code, GitHub still polices this content for violations of its terms of service. Some violations are more overt, like possible copyright infringement. But much of it is a bit tougher to track down.

A GitHub user found themself targeted by a GitHub demand to remove certain comments from their code. The user's code contained the word "retard" -- a term that, while offensive in certain contexts, isn't offensive when used as a verb to describe an intentional delay in progress or development. But rather than inform the user of this violation, GitHub chose to remove the entire repository, resulting in users who had forked this code to lose access to their repositories as well.

It wasn't until the user demanded an explanation that GitHub finally provided one. In an email sent to the user, GitHub said the code contained content the site viewed as "unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, pornographic, obscene, or otherwise objectionable." More specifically, GitHub told the user to remove the words "retard" and "retarded," restoring the repository for 24 hours to allow this change to be made.

Decisions for GitHub:

  • Is the blanket banning of certain words a wise decision, considering the idiosyncratic language of coding (and coders)?
  • Should GitHub account for downstream repositories that may be negatively affected by removal of the original code when making content moderation decisions, and how?
  • Could banned words inside code comments be moderated by only removing the comments, which would avoid impacting the functionality of the code?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
  • Is context considered when moderating possible terms of service violations?
  • Is it possible to police speech effectively when the content hosted isn't what's normally considered speech?
  • Does proactive moderation of certain terms deter users from deploying code designed to offend?
Resolution: The user's repository was ultimately restored after the offending terms were removed. So were the repositories that relied on the original code GitHub decided was too offensive to allow to remain unaltered.

Unfortunately for GitHub, this drew attention to its less-than-consistent approach to terms of service violations. Searches for words considered "offensive" by GitHub turned up dozens of other potential violations -- none of which appeared to have been targeted for removal despite the inclusion of far more offensive terms/code/notes.

And the original offending code was modified with a tweak that substituted the word "retard" with the word "git" -- terms that are pretty much interchangeable in other parts of the world. The not-so-subtle dig at GitHub and its inability to detect nuance may have pushed the platform towards reinstating content it had perhaps pulled too hastily.

Originally posted on the Trust & Safety Foundation website.

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Filed Under: code, content moderation, repositories
Companies: github


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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 3 Feb 2021 @ 3:58pm

    A GitHub user found themself targeted by a GitHub demand to remove certain comments from their code. The user's code contained … a term that, while offensive in certain contexts, isn't offensive when used as a verb to describe an intentional delay in progress or development.

    Being familiar with the history of that specific program, I can say this: They were decidedly not using that word in the “inoffensive” way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Christenson, 3 Feb 2021 @ 6:48pm

    Re: PC Retard...

    So I'm not allowed to complain about the retarded idiot that put a 20V nominal capacitor into a spot in the circuit where it will see 30V????

    I suppose I could use stupid, mindless, or addled instead, but i think all of those terms have been applied to those with mentally difficulties in a formal medical diagnostic context, so what pejoratives are allowed???

    I'm still adjusting to everything I write becoming public and permanent!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Feb 2021 @ 7:16pm

    Re: Re: PC Retard...

    It doesn't matter when you clearly don't give a fuck. So don't worry about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Pixelation, 3 Feb 2021 @ 7:37pm

    As long as they don't filter my pron. :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Feb 2021 @ 8:06pm

    Re:

    Don't worry, they are. After all it's the most offensive thing they can try not to think of.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Feb 2021 @ 8:10pm

    Re: Re: PC Retard...

    Saw this happen with the wine repos recently. Made things confusing because they couldn't use the terms: master, slave, whitelist, or blacklist.

    PC of course, would have the entire project just obliterated from existence on two marks:

    1. It's namesake is an addictive substance that harms and kills people.

    2. They "steal" the creative work of the geniuses at Microsoft. Then they force that work onto systems that were never meant to run it.

    So obviously, wine shouldn't exist.

    /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Feb 2021 @ 8:15pm

    Re:

    Shouldn't matter either way.

    But then again, this is the road that was chosen. Letting a bunch of PC idiots dictate to the world what can be said and done because their right to contract makes all other rights irrelevant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Feb 2021 @ 9:06pm

    Re: Re:

    Who would have thunk that github were spelling Nazis?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Jeroen Hellingman (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 1:43am

    I host master files for many ebooks I produced for Project Gutenberg on GitHub (copyright expired, so that is no issue). Some of these use words that are pretty offensive to some people today. Filtering them out would be a falsification of history, so would force me to take those ebooks away from GitHub. Not seen a notice yet. Lets see where this ends.

    I wonder, would they be able to host the code that checks for those words on GitHub, or would that be banned as well.

    To prevent comment spam, I have a list of bad words on my personal website as well, but that is mostly filled with the names of luxury brands and certain medicines.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Jeroen Hellingman (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 1:51am

    Re: Re:

    Sounds like you're referring to some Christian fundamentalists' talking points:

    "My right to be a bigot against gay people trumps your right not to be discriminated against and fire you for acts that harm nobody and take place outside office hours in the privacy of your own home."

    "My right to be an idiot gives me the right to force doctors to provide false information on reproductive health to women in a medical emergency situation."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 2:09am

    I realize you’re being facetious and all. It’s a bad look for you.

    Buuuuuuuuuuuut…

    I have a couple of lists for alternatives to “stupid”, since people differ on whether the word is ableist. Besides, some of these are sincerely better alternatives because they can denote agency of some kind. “Stupid” and its “cousins” (including “idiot”, “crazy”/“insane”, “hysterical”, and the r-word) generally do not.

    • absurd

    • asinine

    • awful

    • banal

    • baseless

    • clueless

    • dull

    • erroneous

    • fallacious

    • fals e

    • fatuous

    • foolhardy

    • foolish

    • frivolous

    • gullible

    • ignorant

    • ill-advised

    • ill-considered

    • illogical

    • imperceptive

    • imprudent

    • inaccurate

    • inane

    • incompetent

    • inept

    • indefensible

    • in judicious

    • insipid

    • irrational

    • laughable

    • ludicrous

    • misguided

    • misinformed

    • mistaken

    • naï ve

    • nonsensical

    • obtuse

    • oblivious

    • outrageous

    • pathetic

    • pig-headed

    • pointless

    • preposterou s

    • puerile

    • rash

    • ridiculous

    • senseless

    • shallow

    • silly

    • simplistic

    • stubborn

    • substandard

    • thoughtless

    • trifling

    • trite

    • trivial

    • unfounded

    • uninformed

    • unreasonable

    • unsound

    • unten able

    • unwarranted

    • unwise

    • useless

    • vacuous

    • vapid

    • waste of time

    • wasteful

    • willfully ignorant

    • worthless

    • wrong

    Other similar replacements:

    • don’t be stupid → try to make good decisions

    • that’s crazy → that’s a bad idea

    You may also want to think about the variety of uses/meanings when people default to “stupid” and examine the implications of what a particular culture attributes to intelligence. (Basically, it comes down to low intelligence being inherently bad and undesirable, and with the sense that a person can choose their intelligence.) You have far more descriptive and detailed ways to use language than relying on ableist slurs.

    And if anyone reading this comment is thinking “BuT iT’s ToO hArD tO cHaNgE tHe WaY i TaLk!” or something along those lines? Yeah, it can be difficult — at first. I’m not perfect when it comes to avoiding “stupid” and its “cousins”, either. But when you warm up to the idea of using the alternatives, replacing shitty language with personally considerate language is a habit that’s easier to form than you might believe. It also doesn’t cost you anything but a few words on which you were likely overrelying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 2:18am

    Alternative terms to the “master/slave” and “whitelist/blacklist” dichotomies already exist. Not using those alternatives is a decision only the Wine devs could make. Nobody could force the devs to use the alternative terms — and the devs couldn’t force a third party to host their code if they chose to keep using the original terms.

    As for your other two assertions: Your inanity is hilarious in a pitiful way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 2:20am

    Letting a bunch of PC idiots dictate to the world what can be said and done because their right to contract makes all other rights irrelevant.

    Sounds like you’re upset that the language and ideas you prefer aren’t “politically correct” and you wish they were. That’s life, fam: You don’t ever get everything you want.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 2:24am

    I would assume GitHub mods can recognize the difference between novels from decades-to-centuries ago using such language and a person in the here and now using such language as part of a README, project name, or comment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 3:18am

    Re:

    You assume a lot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 3:22am

    Re: Re:

    "bunch of PC idiots dictate to the world what can be said and done "

    Are you complaining that our language is dynamic? What sort of ignorant rant would proclaim such silliness?

    Yes, language changes. Our environment is dynamic and our language is used to describe said environment, therefore it too must change. This is rather obvious.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 3:24am

    Re:

    wait .. there's pron on github?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 3:26am

    Re: Re:

    If you find pornography to be offensive, perhaps you are watching the offensive porn.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 3:28am

    Re:

    Do they allow encrypted files?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 4:03am

    Re: Re: Re: PC Retard...

    "couldn't use the terms: master, slave"

    I prefer the terms primary and secondary as they are much more descriptive of their purpose. But do not let that interfere with your bigotry.

    Why do you not complain about black friday? Seems like the obvious target to me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 6:22am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: PC Retard...

    Primary / Secondary are not equivalent to Master/ Slave.

    In M/S the slave does nothing until the master initiates a contact. It is a question and answer sort of relationship
    In P/S the secondary could be a backup service or a number of other scenarios where both could operate independently

    The problem with this is the intent. Bigotry implies that the terms are being used with a hurtful intent. If this is not the case i.e. it is purely descriptive, the problem is not necessarily with the user. The article was about using the word retard - was there an intent to upset? No, so it is ok. Why does everyone have to bow down to the most offended denominator or risk being called a bigot/racist/<insert others>?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Bruce C., 4 Feb 2021 @ 7:03am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: PC Retard...

    parent/child, server/client, controller/worker. There are plenty of alternatives that are equivalent in one context or another.

    Even if the offensive terms aren't used with intent, remember that the purpose of documentation is communication and that an important part of communication is engaging with your audience. Using words that make your audience think you're an aging boomer who is unable to adapt to the times isn't a good look in the tech industry that values youth and adaptability.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 7:11am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: PC Retard...

    Specifically, in wine, what is this master/slave usage that you claim primary/secondary are not usable?

    "In M/S the slave does nothing until the master initiates a contact. It is a question and answer sort of relationship"

    That is one usage. Similar to NTP, yes?
    In NTP there is a server and there are clients.

    There is no need for the continued use of the master/slave terminology as it is easily replaced, many times with more descriptive terms.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Bruce C., 4 Feb 2021 @ 7:11am

    Re:

    Plus it can be fun to use high-falutin' words like vacuous, asinine or preposterous to emphasize your point, rather than the vapid vocabulary usually seen in such comments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 7:20am

    Bigotry implies that the terms are being used with a hurtful intent.

    You can say bigoted things, and language can imply bigotry, without bigoted intent. Think about the “blacklist/whitelist” dichotomy: Why is “black” the bad one and “white” the good one? (This is why I prefer “allow list/deny list”: They’re less fraught with that issue by virtue of not being a bit of metaphorical language.)

    You’ll find similar phrases/dichotomies that use “black” as a stand-in for “bad” (and “white” as a stand-in for “good”) if you think hard enough (e.g., “blackball”). It’s a subtle effect of language that I’ve heard called the “bad is black effect”, and it’s especially pernicious in the U.S., where race relations have always been…troublesome, to say the absolute least.

    As for the “master/slave” dichotomy, “primary/secondary” is not the only suggested replacement. You could always try these on for size:

    • active/standby
    • controller/device
    • director/performer
    • host/worker (or host/proxy, or coördinator/worker)
    • initiator/target
    • leader/follower
    • requester/responder

    It really isn’t hard to alter your language patterns in ways that are personally considerate to others.

    Oh, and a few of other things:

    The article was about using the [r-word] - was there an intent to upset? No, so it is ok.

    The original name of the program was “WebM for R⸻ds”. The program still has that name on a different code repo site. The name implies that the program is so easy to use, even an intellectually disabled person could use it. (The subtle backhand there: If you couldn’t get it to work, you were…well, I think you get the picture.) That doesn’t strike me as an “inoffensive” use of the word, regardless of intent — and I’m pretty sure the intent wasn’t “inoffensive”, either.

    Why does everyone have to bow down to the most offended denominator or risk being called a bigot/racist/<insert others>?

    In case you didn’t know already, I use “personally considerate” instead of “politically correct” for two reasons. One, it’s more descriptive of that kind of language and the thought processes behind it. Two, it sometimes pisses off people who don’t like being reminded of their inconsideration for others.

    Do I think the idea of “P.C.” language can go a little too far? Yes. Overzealousness is a thing; it can affect everyone — including the personally inconsiderate/politically incorrect. But what do you have to lose from being a little more personally considerate?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 7:27am

    PC: It's what basic human decency is called by people who have none.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    christenson, 4 Feb 2021 @ 8:14am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: PC Retard...

    Let me blackball this comment! ;->

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 9:09am

    They’re a private corporation. They can do as they please, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 9:27am

    Once again: Having the right to do a thing doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

    Although in this instance, yes, it was the right thing to do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 9:44am

    Re: Re: Re:

    No the complaint is that their usage is being interfered with by goddamned morons. Programmers get quite enough of idiotic tweaks from management at work

    To say it is complaining about language being dynamic is disingenuous. Language usages are also allowed to diverge in practice. Last I heard there wasn't a crusade to standardize color/colour or if pants should refer to a garment which should be worn on the outside or not. The changes pushed don't actually help those affected by it but a bunch of refugees from the Saphir-Worf hypothesis's discredittint are acting like they are saving society by being the equivalent of church ladies or Home Owner Associstion members from hell, or stereotypical liberal arts grad students vying for tenure looking for any excuse to discredit competitors. Regardless of unflattering comparison they all come across as shoving their nose into other people's business and transparently trying to grab any ounce of social power and control they can get. It is more than reasonable to have an opinion that these sorts should just fuck off.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 9:47am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Offense does not exist in a vacuum it is always taken by the beholder. Cutting someone's guts open on the top of an altar and gladiators fighting to near death and having their life decided upon a whim were once "not offensive".

    In this case them not having control over the sexuality of others is whar is judged as offensive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 10:43am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Wow, ok.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 10:55am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    why you so mad, bro

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. icon
    nasch (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 11:50am

    Re: Re:

    their right to contract makes all other rights irrelevant.

    Another alt-righter complaining that other people have private property rights. It's strange that so many of them are communists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 12:00pm

    a bunch of [people] are acting like they are saving society

    Anyone who genuinely believes the use of personally considerate language is “saving society” can be rightfully dismissed as ridiculous. The use of that language is but a tiny step forward in changing society for the better.

    You’re not legally beholden to using it. But it’s not a bad idea only because you’re not the one who gets to decide what language is “personally considerate”.

    they all come across as shoving their nose into other people's business and transparently trying to grab any ounce of social power and control they can get

    Given your crack about “liberal arts grad students”, I can safely assume you must be unfamiliar with Republicans’ attempts to do what you accuse “liberals” of doing. The GOP, after all, is the party that wants to criminalize a medical procedure (and possibly jail the women who undergo that procedure).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36. icon
    Anonymous Monkey (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 12:30pm

    PC : It's meaning

    "Politically Correct" ... simply meaning that it's worded in such a way to be as inoffensive as possible while white-washing it's actual public revulsion.

    Basically, if you want to be PC, you go ahead an be one of the "many bloodsuckers" re-writing what is "correct"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 1:07pm

    In my experience, those who whine the loudest and longest about “political correctness” tend to be the people who want to say lots of heinous shit without facing any consequences.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38. icon
    Anonymous Monkey (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 4:59pm

    Re:

    In my experience, those who speak in such a "politically correct" way are the ones who have the most to hide, usually about the subject they are downplaying by being politically correct.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 5:21pm

    I don’t misgender or deadname trans people. That doesn’t mean I’m hiding some sort of secret trans identity.

    …although if cyborg bodies a-lá Ghost in the Shell were a thing… 🤔

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40. icon
    nasch (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 7:33pm

    Re: Re:

    What is it you think they're hiding? I'm not sure if you're saying people who object to gay slurs are secretly gay, and people who object to racial slurs are... secretly non white? Or what.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41. identicon
    Tin-Foil-Hat, 4 Feb 2021 @ 10:54pm

    The Cloud

    "The Cloud" is just someone else's computer and all the BS that goes along with it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 4:21am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    No, it was offensive.
    Just that fearless leader at that time disallowed dissent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43. icon
    Jeroen Hellingman (profile), 5 Feb 2021 @ 5:37am

    Re: Re:

    Defeats the purpose of wanting to share things, right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 10:59am

    Re:

    My objections are entirely upon the people forcing the change and their methods not the changes. By all means use or suggest a clearer term than master/slave for the context to clarify it without the awkwardness and misunderstandings. Leader/follower, boot drive/expansion drive. Instead they aggressively take their context and shove it in everywhere else, assume everything is in the worst possible context and flip out and summon their flying monkeys.

    Given your crack about “liberal arts grad students”, I can safely assume you must be unfamiliar with Republicans’ attempts to do what you accuse “liberals” of doing. The GOP, after all, is the party that wants to criminalize a medical procedure (and possibly jail the women who undergo that procedure).

    I actually know what the liberal arts are unlike you. The toxic academic culture which finds novel statements and standards to try to bully their way to power and say the dumbest shit in its service of a "cause" which looks awfully like a tool. Noticably the worst among liberal arts majors where the fight for tenure is the most intense.

    Your whataboutism is a demonstration of the prepostorus with us or against us mentality. It is the same insanity as a QAnon asserting that you support pedophiles for pointing out that the pizza place doesn't even have a goddamned basement. Lets not have standards set by complete fucking morons - I thought recent events made it obvious why doing so is dangerous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Feb 2021 @ 8:48am

    Re: Re:

    Do you ever get tired of comstant lies and projection like that?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  46. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Feb 2021 @ 9:45am

    The toxic academic culture which finds novel statements and standards to try to bully their way to power and say the dumbest shit in its service of a "cause" which looks awfully like a tool.

    That sounds like a Trump rally.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  47. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Feb 2021 @ 4:23pm

    Re: Re:

    I've never seen anyone who whined about OpenZFS removing the derogatory language, who was even remotely affected by it.

    Only little shits looking for something to cry their triggered racist eyes out over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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